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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/1/20

Efficiency Vs. Resilience

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This crisis is pulling back the curtain on unfettered capitalism, showing that we are actually interconnected.

Coronavirus Concerns Leave Store Shelves Empty
Coronavirus Concerns Leave Store Shelves Empty
(Image by YouTube, Channel: CBS Denver)
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Many years ago, bestselling author Michael Pollan explained there's a trade-off between efficiency and resilience.

For example, your grocery store probably did not have a warehouse full of toilet paper back-stock sitting around somewhere when their customers bought out their entire supply. It would be expensive and inefficient to keep a huge supply of toilet paper on hand in the unlikely chance it would ever be needed.

It would be inefficient but if they'd done it, they might not have an empty toilet paper aisle right now.

The goal was to cut costs by ordering inventory "just in time." That way you don't pay for all the extra, costly warehouses to store weeks or months of supplies. The example we were given was that if a certain large corporation's supply chain shut down, they'd only have enough materials on hand to keep up production for four days.

Efficient? Yes. Resilient? No.

In business school, most classes were focused on one main goal: how to maximize profit. I took a single elective that had one unit on ethics, narrowly interpreted as following the law and doing things like recalling tainted products so your customers don't die.

Right now, efficiency could be deadly.

Hospitals have enough beds, medical personnel, and equipment to handle a normal volume of patients, but nothing like this. They'd been cutting them back for years in the name of profit and efficiency.

Now there's talk of converting empty college dormitories into hospitals, recruiting med students and retired physicians to help, and 3-D printing equipment.

My business school taught social Darwinism: survival of the fittest. The beauty of capitalism, we were taught, is that everyone competes for business and the competition drives innovation, while the least efficient companies go out of business.

It was an outlook that Ayn Rand would endorse: the most generous way to behave is to be selfish, because by doing your part to compete, you are doing your part to drive innovation and efficiency for everyone.

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Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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